Original Article @ Philly.com
Author: David Patrick Stearns
Nov. 23, 2010
Music is often a refracted reflection of the world from which it came. What if that world is consciously researched – like anthropology, but with less objective distance? The validity of that process arrived in several forms in a series of premieres Saturday by the JACK Quartet at Crane Arts, and Sunday by the Network for New Music at the Ethical Society.
In a season titled “Trade Winds,” the always well-prepared Network unveiled the latest by Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield based on visits to remote parts of Tibet, where she recorded hundreds of songs and chants in danger of being lost, plus new works by other composers inspired by her field recordings. The most compelling moments veered furthest from the source material, or so it seemed to the naked ear.
Eric Moe’s Spirit Mountain had mildly jazzy syncopated piano writing using Asian scales. Similarly exotic scales yielded beautifully simple flute-violin interplay in Michael Djupstrom’s Three Months, with pizzicato cello completing the sound picture. Tony Solitro’s Passages was full of halting rhythms that made you wonder if functional Tibetan music should be expected to make sense in a formal concert setting. Or maybe his piece isn’t quite ready.
Obviously benefiting from having closely encountered Tibet on horseback, Clearfield made the widest leap in her new Kawa Ma Gyur (The Unchanging Pillar), a compact piece for chamber ensemble with dire-sounding harmonies and sinister bass writing that put the music close to the haunted landscapes of George Crumb. Electronically manipulated field recordings took on ghostly ambiguity. Though the piece didn’t sustain its high creative pitch, it’s among her best, suggesting that she’s developing a new voice. The old one was fine, but so adaptable to her often-ambitious subject matter as to be hard to define.
In some ways, 2009′s Lung-Ta, the Windhorse (her first Tibetan piece, reprised Sunday), illustrates that: Fashioned in a series of events that supported the choreography of the premiere, the piece now feels like an engaging travelogue of Tibet with the composer disappearing into it all. One odd parallel: Her wind writing sometimes resembled Stravinsky’s in Symphony for Wind Instruments, as did Moe’s in Spirit Mountain. Does Tibet somehow lead to Stravinsky?
The source of Gregory Spears’ Buttonwood, premiered by the JACK Quartet at Crane, was less tangible. The composer, known here for his excellent opera Paul’s Case a few Fringe festivals ago, practiced music therapy of sorts at the Buttonwood Psychiatric Unit in Burlington County, and was inspired to write a 22-minute string quartet that rejects the most earnest though operatic portrayals of mental unhingement. There are wisps of tunes that always engage and sometimes gather steam but lots of intense violin tremolos that touchingly conveyed a sense of waiting – the right treatment? meal time? recovery? – amid the time-stands-still world of locked wards. This impressionistic portrayal of an inner landscape is admirable for its unflamboyant honesty. But will it hold up without prior explanation?
The main explanation before JACK’s performance of Helmut Lachenmann’s astounding String Quartet No. 2 was the subtitle – “Round Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” The piece’s many alternative techniques (bows rubbing in less-resonant places) made breathing sounds, like the inside of a lung. Typical “blessed spirit” iconography in no way related to the explosive dabs and thickets of sound suggesting ethereal goblins with obscure intentions. Musically, there was no typical beginning, middle and end – not a problem in the remarkably concentrated performances assuring that future JACK events will be drop-everything-and-go occasions.